I’ve been putting together these calendars for a few years now and up until this month’s choice for the Baby Boom! calendar I’d not only used nothing but Zoo animals, but I’d used only animals from the Toronto Zoo. This marks the first departure I’ve made from that, for not only does June feature a species on the public’s side of the barriers, but one that’s not actually in the Zoo’s “collection”: barn swallows.
I shot the photo featured above on June 28 of last year, but it wasn’t the first day I visited the nest. The summer of 2016 featured an amazing abundance of barn swallows zipping about in great numbers in the area between the Canadian Domain and the African Savanna, so I had been looking in that region to find any indication of them brooding. I can’t for the life of me remember who first told me about this particular nest (if any of you out there remembers, please let me know and I will edit this post!) but I likely never would have found it on my own. Located in the penguin exhibit, this beautiful structure was stationed on what looked to be an electrical box near the ceiling at the bottom of the southern set of stairs leading to and from the underwater viewing area. Because of the architecture of the exhibit, I was able to stand on the other side of the wall protecting the open stairwell and lean on the top of it to steady my camera. This was crucial because the nesting area was quite dim, I was using a zoom lens, and the parents tended to move about rather quickly. I had a perfect vantage point from there and I made excellent use of it over the two weeks or so between when I first saw the nest – June 17, shown in the photo at left – and when the youngsters had all fully fledged in the first days of July.
I wasn’t sure at first whether there were eggs or live chicks under whichever parent I saw in the nest (they shared the workload virtually 50-50 during the times I watched them) but I was in no rush to go anywhere so I decided to hang out for a bit. Soon I saw the second parent appear with something in its beak that was clearly intended to be food, and the first adult fly off from his or her perch. It was clear that at least some of the eggs had hatched – and probably all of them, or I’d have expected a quick transition from one adult to the other in sitting on the nest. I could hear more than one “peep peep” from inside the bowl of the structure, so there were multiple chicks for sure. However, for the first several trade-offs of the adults, the babies were so deep in the nest that I could not actually see the food being passed from one beak to the next. But eventually my patience paid off.
Finally I was able to get a glimpse – and a photo! – of a tiny beak protruding just above the rim of the nest as the adult swallow deposited its treasure into the waiting mouth. It became quite clear the longer I watched these happenings that the young had been quite recently born; as a result, I had no trouble assigning them their “June” position in my calendar as there was absolutely no way they could have been 18 days old (or more) at that stage of development. If you want to work that out for yourself, have another look at the shot from the top of this page – taken 11 days after the one at left, here – and you’ll see how incredibly quickly they grew to adulthood, as is the case with most bird species.
I wasn’t able to return for nearly a week and when I finally did make it back to see the “little” family it had become considerably… not so “little” any more. Not only had the chicks themselves grown so much that all of them were clearly visible even at rest, but I could now see that there were five of them in that small space! Now, it doesn’t look so difficult for them in the photo here at right, but over time it got to the point where I couldn’t imagine how they all fit in there without suffocating each other. At this point, however, mostly what I saw was a roiling mass of feathers and five tiny off-white beaks patiently waiting for the seemingly never-ending meal train to pull back into the station. For a while I faced only into the alcove, camera constantly at the ready, and tried to begin my rapid-fire shooting the moment the mouths all opened in their cacophony of hunger. However, after ruining several dozen shots by focusing on the newly-arrived blur of the adult’s feathers, I began using a different tactic: I turned around and watched the various swallows darting about in the vast area behind me until one would soar quite high up and begin to dive toward the nest. This gave me just enough time to snap my head around and focus on the mouths before they opened so my camera wouldn’t be fooled by the bulk of the parent making its appearance. And in this way, I was finally able to capture another food transfer:
The adult barn swallow even paused for a moment and posed for me beautifully:
Before taking off again, leaving the pleading sounds of the five little ones behind:
I did manage to get back the next day to kind of “hone” my new method of getting my shots of the activities in the nest, but then didn’t return until four days later, the day I shot the calendar picture. By that time, my skills were practically unnecessary, because not only were the youngsters so much easier to see but the adults lingered quite a bit longer when they arrived – though whether that was due to more confidence or supreme fatigue, I was not really sure. In any event, It was clear I wouldn’t get too many more chances to spend time with this family, as the rate at which these chicks were growing made it obvious they would be moving on to bigger things within a week or so. The photo here at left was taken June 29th; unbelievably, there was already a noticeable difference – particularly in colour and feather quality – from just the day before! But that’s nothing compared to the difference between this photo and the next one….
By July 4th, the now-“juvenile” chicks were priming themselves to “fly the coop.” Their colour would continue to fill in as they got a bit older; eventually their chest feathers would be as glorious as those of their parents. But that made little difference to their ability to fly, so this was the last day I saw all five of them in the nest together. I passed by on July 6th to find only three young swallows still in the nest (and I have not one clue why I didn’t take any photos); by July 8th they were all gone. It had been a short but immensely enjoyable experience, watching these five tiny balls of feathers and talons grow quickly into the stunningly beautiful creatures they were destined to become. There were still quite a lot of swallows flitting about in the trees and fields of that area of the Zoo; I occasionally went back there to see if I could find any with slightly less colouration that I might recognize as “my” swallows, but without any luck – likely because of the speed at which they travel.
Sarah and I went away to a friend’s cottage for a few days in mid-July, but when I came back I discovered that another swallow’s nest – which I had discovered in late June in the eaves of the roof near the washrooms at the top of the Domain but had assumed to be an old one – was actually sporting some “babies” of its own. I clearly found them very late in their growth cycle and don’t really know if there were more than the four you see here originally. I watched a couple of adults come and go on this day, July 20th, but was never really in a good position to grab any shots of them. When I next visited this nest, on the 22nd, there were only three chicks in it; four days later they had disappeared as well. I’ve been back to both nests this year but as of May 10th – the last time I’ve been able to check so far – there had been no sign of any new activity. I’m anxious to get back inside the Zoo and check to see if these nests get reused or not!
Next month features an animal who was born while I was at the Zoo and almost while I was watching, but….well, you’ll have to wait until then for the details! In the meantime, please enjoy this collage of barn swallow photos. And thanks, as always, for stopping by!
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